Aberdovey Golf Club, winner of the Welsh regional section at the 2009 Golf Environment Awards, has undergone a dramatic rebirth in the last three years, returning to its traditional links landscape and preserving important habitats. The challenge was to achieve this on a Site of Specific Scientific Interest to the satisfaction of the Countryside Council for Wales, whilst retaining the attraction of the course for members and to the holidaymakers that flock to the area in summer.
The renovation began in January 2009, with the main changes being to reshape the bunkers to provide a natural, rugged, rustic links-like appearance that seamlessly integrated into the surrounding landforms.
Another task was to break up some of the runway-style tees which were alien to the surrounding natural environment.
"These were broken up into individual tees and the land around shaped to blend into the surrounding environment," explains Deputy Head Greenkeeper, Rhys Butler.
Architect John Kemp, of Islander Golf, was appointed, producing the drawings and reports that were presented to the 'green' sub-committee and the course management staff.
"The work was carried out in-house, with John Kemp on site," explains Rhys. "The greenkeeping staff were split into two teams - one to carry on with the general course maintenance and the other team to proceed with the course changes."
In the first phase, from January to March 2009, seven new bunkers were constructed and forty-three reshaped. Out of date bunkers were filled and sympathetically shaped, and the positioning of others was altered. Work continued in the winter of 2009-10 with the construction of a further newly positioned bunker and nineteen others reshaped, the work being carried out in-house by the greenkeeping staff.
The club's membership had been highly vocal on course design in the past, even rejecting alterations to championship standard made by James Braid, so getting them on side was vital, as Rhys explains: "The decisions were made by the greens sub-committee and all proposed changes were available for members to see, either by being posted on the club website or by drawings that were available for all to view in the clubhouse. John Kemp also hosted a walk/talk around the course for members, so that they could see and understand any change or redesign of the golf course."
The delicate nature of the land required careful planning of the renovation process. A non-managed area was used for 'chunking' (grass transplantation), with the chunks deployed around the bunkers to help blend the golf course into the natural landscape.
"Work on the bunkers was planned around their proximity to grassland translocation sites," says Rhys. "This minimised unnecessary travelling between work areas and, therefore, damage by heavy construction vehicles. The only extra material needed was rootzone to help rooting, so we were able to use existing golf course machinery - a tractor with back hoe and front bucket, plus a tractor and trailer for carrying material around were about all that was required."
Rhys also resorted to more unusual tools to get the desired effect. "One of the best tools we used was a pick axe to rough up the sides of the translocated chunks, as it gives a great looking natural edge!"
Additional bunkering is now a feature of a large number of holes to make for a more challenging experience, whilst allowing golfers the chance to test their skill from teeing grounds of their choice.
Cattle have traditionally been grazed on the course year round, but this has now been restricted to the winter months, leading to the establishment of high rough.
"We had no rough before, now we have definition between fairway, semi-rough and rough and the course now plays in a totally different way - it's a proper championship links golf course," says Rhys.
Head Greenkeeper, Meurig Lumley, agrees: "Taking the cattle off from May to October has enabled the course to grow in areas that would otherwise be of same height, which allows us to manage the roughs to have proper definition in the right places. A semi rough collar on nearly all holes has changed the look of the hole, allowing the golfer to have a fair chance."
A new Kubota 1600 diesel ride on mower has been added to the club's machinery fleet which, Meurig says, is ideal for the rough.
"The lie of the land, and the fact that it is in a SSSI, restricts areas that can be cut, but this does not have too much effect on the look of the hole," he comments. "Now that the majority of the new features have become established, the course can be managed with attention to detail to make sure it is working in the way we want it to."
Meurig adds that, whilst the club has to consider the environment and the appearance of the course in its management, the aim of the turf improvement regime is to produce greens of a fescue/bent mixture to establish good playing surfaces, which is also mirrored through aprons, tees and fairways.
"An ongoing overseeding programme has helped to establish the surfaces that we want," he says. "We are still able to carry out the traditional golf course maintenance tasks, such as aeration, topdressing and verticutting, but use minimal water and fertiliser, and stick to light treatments only."
Rhys adds that the golfers are seeing a real difference in the course.
"The course was generally quite easy to play before. You could hit the ball anywhere, find it and hit it again; there was no real strategy required. Now you have to really plot your way around, it's a true test, whilst being fair at the same time," he says.
"You only have to look at the scores now in most competitions to see the difference. When the club hosts the Welsh Amateur championship in 2011 it will be a real championship golf course again."
However, the course still offers something for the 'leisure' golfers, he insists: "All golfers have the choice to play either from the yellow tees or, if they want a real challenge, the championship 'Darwin' tees. The semi rough is fair, although if you do stray off line there is some pretty thick stuff out there, but hey, it's a championship golf course!"
And the work is not yet complete. Ongoing scrub clearance, especially the removal of bramble and reduction in gorse, has the aim to improve 7000sqm of ecological habitat and thus retain the SSSI requirement of satisfactory condition.
The environment is also given consideration in other areas of the day to day routine. "Waste is managed in various ways - for example, grasscuttings are stored in bays around the course, stockpiled for future use with other materials, such as turf waste, and then used for bases of tees or banking. Water harvesting is another concept that has been put forward to the club, but the initial funding to set this process up is not yet in the club's budget."
Rhys adds: "We have a direct responsibility for the day to day management of the site, we have a legal duty to maintain and enhance where necessary the quality of the habitats within. It is of paramount importance that no operation may negatively affect the quality or quantity of the SSSI habitat. Therefore, each member of staff has a duty to act and follow our policies of using the washdown areas for cleaning off machines, and following maintenance tracks to avoid damage to the environment and compaction to areas of play."
But, Meurig insists that the golf still comes first. "Any work that may cause disruption or disturbance to the playability of the course prior to a tournament is put off until afterwards, or done well in advance. There has been no compromise in the way we aim to work the course, in fact it has made the team more aware of what is important. To work combining the ecology and day to day tasks makes the job very interesting."
Detailed description of the work at Aberdovey
The dune system running along the 12th hole was exposed to local erosion through high tidal action and strong winds. To protect the SSSI, Gwynedd Council organises excess and accumulated sands to be gathered and deposited into 'blowouts' along the dune system. These areas are then planted with marram grass, and 'chunked' for stabilisation as well as using brashings to keep the sand from blowing and erosion, which also helps the marram establish. As the picture below demonstrates, this has been extremely successful and the dune line is constantly improving and strengthening.
Scrub is a serious issue and certain areas have already been cleared, replanted with the natural marram grass and seeded with site specific seed.
Rhys explains: "We have many more areas planned for clearance but, with a change of club management and change of personnel in CCW, progress was halted until both parties were in place. We are currently still awaiting a meeting between both 'new parties' so that we may discuss future work programmes."
Other areas of discussion with the CCW will include rough grassland management - extensive swathes of grassland dominate the landscape and provide the overriding ecological interest through the course and its immediate environs.
Thinner and more upright swards will be positioned closer to the fairways, whilst the denser and less disturbed grasslands are well away from the playing line. From a golfing perspective, this will allow ball retrieval from the wayward golf shot and provide a penalty that is appropriate to the distance from play.
Rhys says, "Currently, we only cut approximately 4-5 yards as a first cut of rough. All other deep rough grassland is left without intervention and provides a valuable habitat for small mammals and invertebrates."
Where there is a risk or possibility of sensitive areas being trampled or destroyed by vehicles, which may include rare plants such as the Common Spotted Orchid, these are protected by hoops and this also makes the golfer aware that they are in a sensitive area.
Fences are used to guide course traffic, preventing trolleys and buggies entering environmentally sensitive areas and maintaining definition between roughs and fairways which, again, enhances the visual impact on the golfer.
Aberdovey Golf Club engages with partners, members, guests and visitors so that they are fully aware of its aims and objectives. Regular updates and reports on environmental works and other developments are posted on the club website.
Various signs are used in environmentally sensitive areas such as scrub and in the sand dunes, informing members of the public and golfers of the special area they are in. Where there is public access, controls such as fencing and boardwalks are in place to prevent man-made erosion.
The club communicates and interfaces with the Countryside Council for Wales, STRI, Gwynedd Council, the Environment Agency and the Snowdonia National Park Authority to ensure the site is protected and promoted accordingly.
Naturalisation of tees
The teeing ground on the 15th used to be 90 yards long and of a 'runway' style, which looked completely alien to the surrounding natural environment, explains Rhys. "This has now been altered and four separate 'free form' tees created which blend into the existing topography, whilst minimising visual impact and integrate seamlessly into the natural environment."
"In the winter of 2009/10, there were a further three new tees built to add extra yardage to the golf course and allow it to stay in touch with today's equipment and modern distances. These are, again, totally natural and blend into the surrounding landscape."
The bunker project
Rhys explains: "The bunker project we undertook was focused on shaping a natural, rugged, rustic links style that integrates seamlessly into the landscape."
This creates visually dominant hazards whilst also serving to direct the golfer away from certain areas. It also offers a risk option to achieve preferred angles into the greens and penalise poorly judged or reckless shots.
The bunkers maximise course strategy to test and tease the golfer in equal amounts, so that the experience is enhanced when the challenge is conquered, Rhys suggests.
"One of the important factors behind the bunker style is that they are approved, if not encouraged by CCW," he comments. "The unkempt style helps reduce the visual impact of the (managed) course in the natural environment and its influence on the surrounding habitat."
"Environmentally, the bunkers act as 'semi mobile dune' habitats where dune species can survive in an otherwise 'fixed grassland' habitat."
The naturalised bunkers consist of blowout-style hollows with visible sand flash faces and extensive marram planting in the banking and surrounds. As Rhys says, "They are simply part of the landscape."
The debris arising from scrub clearance is allowed to dry out on site, and is burnt in a specially designated area on hard standing away from any ecologically rich grasslands.
"Grass cuttings collected from our three bays around the course are brought to a central composting area," Rhys explains. "Clippings are left for no longer than two weeks in these bays, as this lessens the impact of chemical residues and nutrients being washed through into the ground."
Composted clippings can then be used should fill be needed to create hummocks or humps - a good example of this is the elevation in front of the pumping station house on the 1st hole in a bid to lessen its visual impact for the golfer when playing the hole.
"All of our empty containers from white lining aerosol cans, pesticide containers and fertiliser bags are collected and disposed of by specialist waste disposal company Interlude," he adds.
The club is constantly increasing the population of drought resistant grasses - fescues and bents - minimising the need to water on a regular basis. Other water management activities include watering at the optimum time during the day or night, paying attention to topographical features such as slope angling and contouring, and hand watering to deliver the optimum precipitation rate into the rootzone.
Wetting agents are also used to balance air to water ratios in the soil, reducing the need to over-water by ensuring consistent moisture and air levels in the rootzone. The use of a Hydroject is also used to maximise hydration directly into the rootzone.
"We regularly monitor our irrigation system for pressure loss, so any leaks may be detected and repaired," says Rhys.
Aberdovey Golf Club is investigating the possibility of water harvesting from around the clubhouse and around the course, along with the future installation of a reed bed to treat washings from buggies or mowers. "These are still in the planning stages and need to be discussed through various committees to be passed and given the go ahead," he explains.
Entry to the Golf Environment Awards is open to all golf clubs and courses in the UK, no matter what size or type. Every golf course has an equal chance of winning an award - the judging is based on your environmental focus and projects, not on your course.